Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Favorite Artists

Almost every interview of an artist one reads will involve discussion of artistic influences. Who are your favorite artists? or painters? or writers? or whomever. Which works influenced you as you developed, and so on. Some of the same makers of the past are mentioned time and again, whether Raphael or Wyeth, Durer or Pollock. An examination of which artists are my particular favorites continues to surprise me. This series of posts is intended to explore the works of artists whom I've learned about and find most inspiring.

Vermeer, "The Art of Painting," ca1667
As someone whose work is firmly grounded in the real world, my influences are mostly artists in that world, rather than abstraction and non-representational art. Most of the artists I admire personally were or are painters, but there is a reasonable leavening of sculpture. That's not to say that artists from other eras and other "isms" haven't had influence on my own practice. These days old influences and new ones continue, but it's dreary to list one's favorites. Instead my plan is to devote a post now and then to some of my favorites, probably in no particular order.

Over the past several decades my focus has again and again returned to the masters of the 17th century particularly the northern painters. Obvious representatives are Rembrandt, Hals, Vermeer, and their contemporaries. There is something to be learned from each on every revisit to their works.

Among my other favorites from that age of painting (besides the three above) are Jan Steen, Pieter Claesz and Gabriel Metsu. These lesser-knowns were highly-skilled and very successful. And like their better-known contemporaries, they have much to teach.

Pieter Claesz, "Vanitas," 1630
Claesz is well-known for his vanitas works. Vanitas paintings are a reminder of universal mortality, containing most often a skull, perhaps a bubble (evanescent), or a snuffed candle, among other symbols of the brevity of life. Beautifully painted, the vanitas works by Claesz have stood the test of time.

Gabriel Metsu, "The Sick Girl," 1659
Gabriel Metsu was a painter of many kinds of work, including history, portraits, and my particular favorite, genre paintings. These were works depicting daily life in the era--taverns, weddings, visits to the doctor, and so on. Metsu painted a number of very sensitive works of sick children. In the painting included here a young woman is desperately, probably mortally, ill. Her mother weeps at hger bedside as the terribly weakened girl seems about to breathe her last.
Jan Steen, "The Quacksalver," 1651
Like Metsu, Jan Steen painted genre scenes as well as history, landscape, and religious allegory. Steen was a master craftsman but he also injected humor into his works. His medical scenes in partcular often have a rather macabre humor. In this painting, "The Quacksalver," the itinerant potion salesman and folk healer is extracting a tooth from a very reluctant boy as village people look on. A quacksalver was a patent medicine salesman, looked upon as little more than a fraudulent nuisance.

There were many other very accomplished, even masterful painters of the time, and all from that small part of northern Europe. One wonders how such things happen. Why did Italy in the 16th century beget so many great artists? And why did tiny Holland do the same in the 17th?

This post is the first in what will probably become a continuing series dealing with favorites and why they've been an influence. More to come.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Studying Presidents

As part of an ongoing project, I've been making drawings and paintings of American presidents. These are studies of the features of men like Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and even Harry Truman. The idea has been to use the series as a way to practice many different disciplines as well as produce images to use in future work. So I've done graphite drawings, digital drawings, casein paintings, and oil paintings of some of the presidents of the United States. Here are a few.

"Dwight Eisenhower," graphite, 2017
President Dwight Eisenhower was enormously popular in the mid-20th century. He had been the general in charge of the the American and Allied forces during World War II before being elected in the 1950s. His high forehead and relatively long face make him difficult to sketch. This is graphite on toned paper, about 6x8.

"Thomas Jefferson," digital, 2017

This is an digital drawing of Thomas Jefferson, who was the third president. Jefferson has been controversial in recent decades owing to his having owned slaves and having a multitude of mixed-race descendants. The contradictory nature of his stand on human rights versus also owning human beings has been difficult to reconcile.

"Abe," oil on panel, 2014
Abraham Lincoln is probably the most revered of our presidents because of his central role in preservation of the nation itself during the Civil War. His influence has continued even a century and a half after his death. This is an oil study done from a photograph taken in about 1864. The colors were invented, of course, since color photography didn't exist at that time.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Fragonard Reconsidered

Long ago, in a university humanities course, we learned about French painters of the 18th century and their rococo works, particularly exemplified by Francois Boucher and Jean-Honore Fragonard both of whose works were long out of fashion by those days. The pictures themselves seemed like cakes with too much gooey icing, too sweet, too "cute." (As a callow youth I completely missed the sub rosa eroticism.) No, Fragonard's work was not my taste nor style, which in those days tended toward a more gritty American realism.

"Young Girl Reading," ca1770.
Perhaps twenty years later while visiting the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. I happened on a small work by Fragonard, "Young Girl Reading." In this picture, we see much less of the sugary dollops and flourishes in favor of an intimate portrait of a twenty-ish woman in a brilliantly painted yellow dress. The effect was entirely stunning when I saw it. Here was smashing color, deft and exciting brushwork, and in total, a truly fetching picture. As the years have passed I've returned to visit the picture many times, always astonished by the facility and apparent rapidity of the work. During those years I ran across other works by Fragonard that were equally surprising, particularly his portrait of an old man that is now in the Chicago Art Institute. In that work, an elderly man with a face riven by the years and a too-red nose stares at us from a gloomy setting. The brushwork of the features is at least as delicious as that in the portrait of the young woman.

Now the National Gallery is opening a new exhibition of Fragonard's Fantasy Figures, a group of paintings that includes the Young Girl. The exhibit runs until early December. Some years ago, a page of drawings by Fragonard was discovered and has been linked to a series of fourteen paintings, which are the subject of the exhibit. Nearly all of the sketches are of named individuals of the time, and are linked together with the resultant paintings. These remind me of tronies--the idealized Dutch paintings of heads--but are of actual people. But the brushwork and composition on display are very reminiscent of earlier painters like Hals. In any event, this looks like a not-to-be-missed show, and I hope to see it.

Friday, October 06, 2017

Sketchbook Searches

Sometimes, when nothing strikes my imagination, when a motto I use--"just paint something"--doesn't even work, I go to to a stack of old sketchbooks for inspiration. A lot of the stuff in those books is more like musing in images rather than any kind of finished idea. Sometimes there's nothing at all to see, and sometimes a forgotten sketch, or scrawl, strikes a spark. Once in a while it's a good practice to leaf through the old books. You never know.

Here are a few sketches, done mostly in graphite. The first is a page of thumbnail sketches I did for an assignment. The idea was that we see blue car with the engine running at our gas station and a masked man with his hand in his pocket emerges. Trying to figure out composition, values and so on was a useful exercise. The painting has yet to be made, if ever.

The next sketches are from a small series intended as studies for an oil painting. Again, the painting hasn't resulted, but the sketches were interesting enough in themselves to keep. The top is the Stone Arch Bridge in Minneapolis, and the bottom is a small bridge in the same city. Now that I look at the lower image again, I'm again considering that painting.

The delicate beauty of this young woman attracted me immediately when  I did the sketch, but somehow it got shuffled into the sketchbook along with a number of other sketches, only to be found not long ago and scanned. The sidelong gaze and shimmer in her eyes made her innocence and questioning expression compelling.  This is a 5.5x8.5 sketchbook page.

That isn't quite the case with this female whom I sketched around the same time. In this case, she is a character in a movie set about a century ago; hence the hairstyle. But this young woman's character is considerably less innocent and considerably more calculating, which was what drove me to sketch her and the look on her face. This is also about 5x8.

The last drawing for today is a sketch of one of my models, done quickly on copier paper with a number 2 pencil. Many sketches like this wind up in the circular file. I kept this one because I liked the expression and the tilt of her head. As is easy to see, this one was hasty and was never cleaned up.

Tuesday, October 03, 2017

Fall Sketching

As the Fall season progresses and colors change, the chances for exploration of chroma, value and hue when sketching are wonderful. This season I'm going to try to do a good deal of outdoor sketching, trying to capture some of the change. For a landscape painter (to which I've no claim), Fall is a great season.

"Harvest, 2017," watercolor, 8x10
In Iowa, the farmers are cutting and threshing corn. The machines they use are called combines. You see them sometimes in groups if a big field is being harvested. The cornstalks are a golden brown, with no traces of green. The corn is cut when the kernels are dry enough and the stalks dried out. This is an 8x10 watercolor and ink from a few weeks ago. The challenge for me was capturing the cornstalks and the motion of the machine, so I chose of eliminate as much detail as possible while blurring the movement of the stalks.

"Spire," watercolor, 8x10
It isn't just the colors and foliage that change in autumn. The light changes too as the sun begins to move more southerly. I sat in a coffee shop a few days ago and sketched a dilapidated church spire across the street while thinking about the light and shade. This is also 8x10 in the same sketchbook.

"Warm November," watercolor, 3.5x5
The last image is also a watercolor, this time I did a quick sketch of the woods behind my studio. The weather had been unseasonably warm into November, and a single tree had turned red. This is about 3.4x5 in a pocket sketchbook.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Favorite Art Books 11

Long ago I recall reading an article wherein a renowned astronomer was asked about his occupation. "I am a student of astronomy," was his reply, despite the fact that he was well into his eighties and a distinguished professor. For me, that's a telling statement of a curious, intelligent man. Being a lifelong student is said to be critical in all sorts of occupations and pursuits, from the sciences to politics, and it is no less so for an artist.

Learning new methods, revisiting old ones, studying new materials, represent ways to stay fresh and keep the flow of creativity. Learning is one of my chief delights in art. You can always learn something new and useful. These days we have podcasts, videos, online coaching and teaching, and all kinds of digital ways to add to our fund of information. But even so perhaps the most important activity is reading new art books. Art books are as valuable today as ever, existing as they do in tangible, printed formats rather than digital formats. And while videos certainly fill the gaps between personal instruction and printed matter, they can't replace books. You can open a book to an image and spend all the time you need, regardless.

The urban sketching movement has been around for about a decade, starting in Seattle and spreading from there. Today many sketch daily, capturing the life of the city around them. There are quite a few books available about sketching, and quite a number of them deal with the urban setting. But to date, my favorite of the sub-genre is Urban Sketching, by Thomas Thorspecken, subtitled The Complete Guide to Techniques. Published in 2014, the book provides a comprehensive introduction to sketching in the city.

Mr. Thorspecken is the proprietor of a blog, Analog Artist Digital World, a site he began in 2009 vowing to do a sketch a day. Mr. Thorspecken is a highly experienced artist and illustrator, having working as a freelance illustrator and later for Disney Feature Animation.
He began sketching in and around his home in central Florida as a way to become part of it, to "finally put down roots," as he puts it on the blog.

Typical page from "Urban Sketching,"
In this volume, Mr. Thorspecken has done a wonderful job of describing why, how, when and where of urban sketching. As is always needful, he devotes substantial space to the tools for sketching and how he uses them. His first chapter also deals with contour drawing, line, value, color, and considerably more. But it is in subsequent chapters where his passion for outdoor, urban sketching really begins to show. The second chapter is devoted to getting out of the studio and getting the most out of it and more complicated material such as perspective, outdoor and indoor space, composition, and various techniques for on-the-spot drawing. Perhaps the most enjoyable chapters are those Mr. Thorspecken devotes to people and to choosing one's subject matter. In the final chapter he discusses all sorts of opportunities--parks, transportation, performances, bars and restaurants, celebrations, and simple street life. Anything is fodder for the sketcher.

The text is loaded with colored and monochrome sketches from not only the author but others, showing the variety and quality of work one can achieve with devotion and practice.

To anyone interested in sketching in the city, particularly in the various venues available to the artist, this book is recommended as a resource. For the more advanced artist it provides encouragement and new ideas. For the beginner, it provides a good, systematic approach to any sketch work.
From "Urban Sketching," overlapping crowds
Previous Posts in this series:
Favorite Art Books Part 10
Favorite Art Books Part 9
Favorite Art Books Part 8
Favorite Art Books Part 7
Favorite Art Books Part 6
Favorite Art Books Part 5
Favorite Art Books Part 4
Favorite Art Books Part 3
Favorite Art Books Part 2
Favorite Art Books Part 1

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Digital Head Sketches

Over the past several months I've been doing a few digital sketches of heads and faces, often based on captured news photos I see on the various morning news outlets. Some of these were made because of interesting expressions or interesting faces or lighting. In most cases these drawings were made using Sketchbook, a subscription digital art program, and a Wacom Cintiq drawing tablet. Any digital art program these days allows many options, of course, but a quick impression is quite simple and easy to revise or save, and Sketchbook has become my favorite.

"Disgusted," digital from online still
A few of these sketches came about because the expression of the person interested me. These were mostly people I saw in an online news image, but sometimes the source was Facebook or another less known site. And the person might or might not be famous or even known by the public. They were chosen for their facial structures or expressions.

In no case is any of these a finished drawing. Instead they're quick ideas, the same as might be recorded in a Molek
"Blackwater," digital from online still
ine using pencil. In "Disgusted" part of my interest was in the shape of the woman's head. In part too, the unusual perspective was fun to capture. The same goes for the male head in "Blackwater," who photo appeared in a news item. His glum expression and hooded eyes were intriguing, and related to a legal setback.

"Ibon," from an online selfie
In some cases the individual pictured was chosen because of the particular news situation and the expression I saw. As I've posted several times in the past, capturing expression is for me one of the most difficult and fascinating of artistic skills. And for me too that means a continual struggle to find the exact mark to evoke the desired expression. "Ibon" shows a kind of joyfulness in the raised eyelids and wide-eyed smile that I liked.

"Y'all Really Should Trust Us," from an online news photo
In the case of the final sketch, it was the downcast mouth and sidelong look that made me stop and do a sketch. Sometimes the expression belies other circumstances. In this case the drawing was in June, after a failed bill in the United States Senate. The politician in the sketch, having led the unsuccessful effort, seemed terribly downcast and disappointed.

Public sketching in coffee shops, parks, community centers--anywhere people gather--is strongly advocated by many, and I agree. But sketching heads and faces is a simple matter these days, using online sources and digital methods.